Observations are used to inform assessments, which then feed into planning.
Children are observed in the context of planned (but self-chosen by the child) activities and experiences, and in terms of their responses to provision enhancements. This evaluation then provides the practitioner with further knowledge that informs planning.
Throughout this process, children should be consulted, by appropriate means, to allow them autonomy over the direction of their learning and choices in how they are supported in developing their personal interests.
Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage recognises this principle of early years education that applies to all young children, whatever their developmental stage or individual learning needs: 'Early years experience should build on what children already know and can do' (page 11).
As skilled as practitioners may be in making observations and recording significant learning, if they do not reflect upon, and use that information, the impact on children's learning will be minimal.
Of course, any quality observation will raise the awareness of the practitioner, and increase their understanding of the child, but it is the analysis and sharing of information, and the subsequent planning, that will help to take children forward in their learning.
A child arrives at the setting with a range of previous experiences.
Practitioners at a previous setting may have documented these experiences, and the child's achievements, and passed on the appropriate paperwork.
Knowledge of the child may also be passed on verbally, perhaps by a parent or carer.
Such information must be taken into account when supporting the child during the settling-in period. Throughout the child's time in the setting, observations from home should feed into the assessment and planning process to ensure that the needs of the whole child are being met.
In the case of children with identified special educational needs, there may be additional adults involved and it is important that observations from all parties inform the decisions made about individual education plans.
A group of observations can help practitioners to build up a picture of a child's learning and provide the necessary information to make sound judgements about learning. An isolated observation is a piece in the jigsaw and evidence towards an assessment but, until that learning is observed in a variety of contexts, the practitioner cannot be sure that understanding is embedded securely.
The early learning goals and stepping stones offer a framework for measuring children's progress and planning a curriculum.
Once a cluster of observations establish that a child is consistently displaying certain behaviours, or using their understanding confidently in a range of situations, a summary assessment can be made against a stepping stone or early learning goal.
The curriculum guidance also provides examples of what children do within each band, which can be used to support judgements. Verbal exchanges between practitioners at this stage are useful in the process of making decisions about children's learning.
As the stepping stones are currently organised in coloured bands, many settings have adopted a colour-coding system for recording assessments.
In high-quality settings, practitioners:
* refer to clear evidence when making summary assessments
* often code or tag individual, or groups of, observations in the child's profile with a phrase from the appropriate stepping stone/goal
* cross-reference these tagged observations to an overview of the child's level of development and progress in areas and aspects of the curriculum.
(The overview is updated each time summary assessments are made.) The process of building up assessments on a cumulative basis continues through nursery and reception. Reception staff use the Foundation Stage Profile to summarise children's achievements, based on observational evidence, and in many schools staff enter data electronically into children's records every half term. This is then used to inform planning for children at the beginning of Key Stage 1.
It is important that judgements are consistent and that all staff are in agreement about, for example, what is firm evidence towards the blue stepping stone for 'dispositions and attitudes' within the area of personal, social and emotional development.
Moderation within the team is a vital part of the process in ensuring assessments are accurate, and moderation between teams within a local area will provide an even greater degree of clarity and consistency.
Practitioners should meet regularly to discuss observations and agree judgements. A moderation portfolio can be a very useful reference document and training tool in a setting. In terms of assessments against the stepping stones and early learning goals, this would include examples of observations that had been agreed by the team to be strong evidence towards a particular aspect of learning.
PLANNING NEXT STEPS
Having made assessments to identify where children are on their learning journey, practitioners consider where they need to go next. Very often, this will mean planning more opportunities and contexts for children to explore the same concepts and practise the same skills. 'Next steps' is not always about moving on to the next stage. Children need to consolidate their learning by repeating, revisiting and testing out their own theories.
Support for children's next steps will involve various strategies in response to the observations and assessments that practitioners have made. Sometimes a focus activity will be planned or a visit out of the setting arranged. In other cases, the focus of support will be the adult role - for example, looking at particular lines of questioning that will challenge children's thinking, or at role-modelling of skills or ideas that will help to extend their learning.
The Foundation Stage curriculum guidance includes a section called 'What does the practitioner need to do?', offering useful suggestions on how to support learning within the stepping stones bands for each aspect of learning. It can also be helpful when a firm assessment of a child's learning has been made. For example, several observations give evidence that a particular child's learning is embedded at blue stepping stone stage for 'numbers and labels for counting' within the area of mathematical development. The practitioner may then start to look for planning ideas within the green stepping stone band. Sometimes notes identifying 'next steps' are included in children's profiles and related directly to a cluster of observations. The team, through observation and assessment of individuals, may have identified a group of children with similar needs.
For these group needs to become apparent, there must be a forum for sharing and discussing assessments of individuals, perhaps at a weekly planning meeting. In cases where assessments highlight common needs, practitioners can target the identified children, although any exciting planned activity is likely to engage other children as well.
LOOKING AT INTERESTS
Although it is important to measure children's progress in terms of the Foundation Stage curriculum framework, these are not the only assessments that should inform our planning.
Several observations over time may reveal individual or group interests.
Knowing about these is invaluable to practitioners when it comes to planning experiences and activities that will engage children and motivate them to learn.
If practitioners observe that a child or group of children are interested in travel, they might plan activities that focus on this interest and support children's next steps in an area of learning, for example, 'use writing as a means of recording and communicating' (CL&L, writing, green stepping stone). The practitioners may decide to introduce invoice pads in a role-play garage, tools and materials to make train tickets when playing with the small-world train set, and create a 'waiting' list of children's names for turn-taking on the bikes in the outdoor area.
When children are exploring and trying to make sense of their world, they sometimes display patterns in play, or schemas. These can also provide a very useful insight into a child's thinking and are another tool for assessing and planning children's learning.
Where a repeated behaviour is observed, for instance, a child transporting objects from one place to another, practitioners may decide to provide resources such as bags and shopping trolleys to enable the child to find out more about the world, and about how things 'work' within it, through their schema. Where more than one child may be pursuing the same interest or exploring the same schema, keyworkers should share information in order to identify these common interests.
It is observations of children absorbed in self-initiated play that generate the most accurate information about a child's learning, and an assessment of involvement levels, as defined by Ferre Laevers, also helps ensure that what is planned is effective in motivating children.
Children showing the signs of intense involvement will be working at the limits of their capabilities, and their learning will be at a high level.
Whatever is motivating them so intrinsically is a good starting place for further planning. Observations in terms of the children's involvement are also a useful tool in evaluating planned activities or experiences.
To ensure that adults stay on the right track when planning support for children's learning, it is crucial that they consult the children involved regularly. Photographs and video observations can furnish valuable opportunities for reflective discussions with children and, often, they will reveal more to adults about what has interested or motivated the children during a particular learning experience as they reflect on it.
Children can be asked how they would like to take their learning forward through questions, such as, 'What else would you like to find out about dinosaurs?', 'What other kinds of dinosaur would you like to have in nursery?'
They can also be presented with some suggestions for activities and enabled to make choices about what is planned - for example, 'I wondered whether you would like to build a dinosaur "world" in the outdoor space. We could dig out an area and use stones, sand and plants to make a place for our dinosaurs to live... Or would you like to make an information book about all the different dinosaurs we have in nursery? We could take a photograph of each one and write about what it likes to eat.'
* Vicky Hutchin, Right from the Start: Effective Planning and Assessment in the Early Years (Hodder Murray)
* Vicky Hutchin, Tracking Significant Achievement in the Early Years (Hodder Murray)
Ferndale primary school, Sandwell, Birmingham
A clear understanding of early years practice by school management has enabled staff within the Foundation Stage unit at Ferndale Primary School, Birmingham, to put observation and assessment firmly at the heart of their practice.
A team of six full-time staff, plus SEN support staff, work with the Unit's 133 children - 78 in nursery sessions and 55 in reception.
'Our unit works well because senior staff recognise the importance of observation and assessment and give us the staff and time needed to collect and assess evidence of children's learning,' says Foundation Stage manager Fay Langford.
To track the progress of so many children,keyworkers observe their key children; all staff record significant observations on stickers posted in each area of the nursery; and every week, one staff member observes seven targeted children - three from nursery, four from reception and all identified by a tiger badge.
These targeted assessments, recorded using notes, videos and photographs, and carried out about three times a year on each child, 'work well,' says Mrs Langford, 'because they take you on little journeys', revealing evidence of children's progress, friendships and use of the provision.
At the weekly team meeting, staff assess all observations and feed their findings into their planning. The targeted observations are assessed and the findings moderated and recorded in the children's profiles under the relevant stepping stones and early learning goals.
Head teacher Nigel Edge says, 'Assessment is used throughout the school to inform future learning and teaching, to enable staff to challenge the children's learning and develop their independent skills further.'
* This 12-part series aims to support practitioners in achieving and maintaining high-quality provision in the Foundation Stage.
* The series is underpinned by the principles for early years education as identified in Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage and takes into account the national daycare standards and the 'outcomes' for children as set out in Every Child Matters and laid down in the Children Act 2004.
* Each part of the series will focus on a different aspect of practice, highlight key elements of good practice and offer a benchmark for self-evaluation.
* The series encourages practitioners to be reflective in their practice and to see the quest for quality as a developmental process.
* The elements of quality in early years practice are often interdependent and there will be points of cross-referencing between parts of the series.
* Part 8 will be published with Nursery World on 17 August.
10 steps to quality
1 How do management ensure that all adults have a sound knowledge and understanding of child development and early learning in order to recognise and respond appropriately to children's needs?
2 What training opportunities do you provide for practitioners to extend their own knowledge about, for example, schemas and involvement?
3 Do you have an agreed and easily understood system in place for recording and summarising assessments?
4 How do you use assessment information that you receive about children from other settings?
5 How do you consult with children and involve them in planning for their own learning?
6 Do you have a regular forum for the discussion between practitioners of individual children's needs and interests?
7 How do you use observations from home in the assessment process, and how do you involve parents in planning support for their children's learning?
8 How do assessments of individuals feed into weekly planning and how do they impact on teaching strategies used?
9 Do you plan opportunities for whole- team moderation of assessments?
10 How does management facilitate moderation discussions between your team and other settings?